Tuesday, 6 May 2014

May 6, 2014

Best, worst and funniest

Often when my kids were little we would have dinner while sharing our best, worst, and funniest moments of our day. As I sit at Heathrow waiting for the flight to Halifax, I am filled with many memories of this latest pilgrimmage to Corrymeela. At our final dinner on Sunday evening, we sat at a round table at a popular Italian restaurant in Belfast, Villa Italia, sharing our best, worst and funniest memories of the week. Among the best ...

-          The sessions with Paul, particularly the first day and how he had us laughing one minute and extremely uncomfortable the next, and how we realized that there was a lot of deep learning in the discomfort
-          The beauty and hospitality that emcompasses life at Corrymeela
-          Rachel’s sharing of her story
-          Rachel and Deryk greeting us as the bus arrived on Tuesday afternoon
-          The day in Derry, and the sacredness of Jon McCourt’s story

There weren’t a lot of worst moments – certainly watching one of our members take a tumble in the Interpretation Centre at the Giant’s Causeway was named (she’s ok ... but bruised and sore).

Some of the worst moments (particularly mine, it seems ...) became other people’s funniest ...

-          One of the worst moments for me was on Monday when we were accosted over and over by competing tour guides for the Belfast City bus tour ... in exasperation I practically yelled at them (okay, I’m pretty sure I did yell at them ...) “Stop it! Do you know how frustrating this is for a tourist?” I guess that was pretty funny to everyone else ... in hindsight I can see that.
-          There was another running joke throughout the week. On our first evening, when we were creating our group standards to be agreed to by all, I said that the one thing I didn’t want to do was stand on a street corner with 7 people and try to make a decision. I said that if that happened, the top of my head would blow off. It happened at least several times the first day ... by the time we got to Tuesday evening and the reflection with Rachel, I was realizing that I could survive 8 people on a street corner making decisions. Rachel gave us each a footprint to draw images and symbols of our journey so far ... mine is below. April was beside me while we were doing it. She looked over and said “Is that the top of your head blowing off?” “Yes” I said, “but the next picture is one where it’s back together. I am realizing that sometimes you have to make decisions on the street corner, and I guess that’s ok.”

Perhaps that’s a good metaphor for the week – in some ways, perhaps all of us had the top of our heads blown off as prior assumptions, new knowledge, emotions, and our own experiences  got all mixed together. But we survived, even thrived after the initial discomfort, thanks to the gentleness and generosity of spirit of each member of the group, and of our amazing facilitators, and the fact that Deryk and the Corrymeela community took care of us so well. 

This spring I read a wonderful book called "The Unlikely Pilgrimmage of Harold Fry", a story about a retired man who sets off to mail a letter one day, and instead of putting it in the mailbox, he decides to hand deliver it by walking across England. It's a wonderful story about surprises, friendship, love, pushing through the hard times, and the gift of the journey. Sometimes I thought that this trip should be called "The Unlikely Pilgrimmage to Corrymeela in May, 2014" ... but ...

Once again, I watched the hills of Belfast fade into the distance in the early morning. Until next time – hopefully February 2015.

Monday, 5 May 2014

May 5, 2014

Cracks in the walls ...


Friday at Corrymeela was spent in Derry/Londonderry (or, “stroke city” as some call it ...). Upon arrival we met Jon McCourt, a peacebuilder for many years, who was actually in the civil rights march in January 1972 on what would come to be known as Bloody Sunday. Jon also loves stories and history, and started our tour on the 400 year walls of Derry, giving us many centuries of stories and legends. It was a very thought provoking and moving day, and gave us much to think about for a long time.

Paul helped us debrief the experience on Saturday morning. Asking us to use each other "as clay" to sculpt an image from the previous day, we each in turn presented an image and then had a discussion about it. Images included a representation of the famous statue of two figures almost touching, “Hands Across the Divide” by Maurice Harron. (http://www.agefotostock.com/en/Stock-Images/Rights-Managed/XT9-899092), and a recreation of one of the photographs that Jon had from the actual Bloody Sunday event. Each image led to conversation, surprises, and a deepening awareness of the pain carried in the hearts of many in this country, and of the complexity of the peace process.



The image that came to my mind was of a picture that I took while walking the walls ... a  picture of a little green plant sprouting through the 400 year walls (pictured above). Luckily, Sandy had a green shirt on ... so she became the little green sprout poking through the wall. The image speaks to me of the resilience of the people of this country, and of those all over the world who work tirelessly for peace and reconciliation. It is an image of hope, resilience, and persistence, of finding the cracks in the systems where growth and light can get through.


Below are pictures of the group with Jon McCourt in Derry, and a picture of our whole group with Paul.

Friday, 2 May 2014

May 1, 2014

Kids, fences, balloons and beer

The Centre site has been full of children these past two days ... dozens of pre-schoolers and their parents. The site is filled with squeals of delight, laughter and the odd ringing of the worship bell in the woods - something kids love to do once they figure out it’s there.

They are part of a program called Community Relations in Schools (CRIS), a  “proactive, open, welcoming organisation that is driven by a flexible approach to Community Relations work and an understanding of the need to work with each individual school and community at the stage they are at in their own Community Relations journey, CRIS works alongside children, young people, school staff and parents and community stakeholders withing schools and education communities to challenge bias and promote the values of equity, diversity, interdependence and learning.” (from their website).

Many groups visiting Corrymeela come for a residential experience only after several meetings and sessions in their communities. Their presence onsite this week is a very tangible reminder of the work of Corrymeela in the community, and with a new generation.

Our day was spent with Paul Hutchinson, until December 2013 the Centre Director in Ballycastle. Paul is a mediator, artist, filmmaker, poet, therapist, and all around facilitator extraordinaire ... during the course of the day he took us to many places, mostly in our “gut and hearts” as we uncovered layer after layer of the complexities of the peace process as it is lived out in this country. There was laughter, and times when we were close to tears. Below is a picture of a one of the lighter moments, the group trying to keep a balloon in the air to a count to 40.

At one point in our discussion, Deryk offered a helpful metaphor of the peace process. Comparing it to people of different heights trying to look over a high fence, he said that some people might need one box to look over the fence, while others need two, or even more, and perhaps a very tall person doesn’t need one. But the end result is that everyone is able to look over the fence. We expanded the metaphor ... what about those who might think outside the box and cut a hole in the fence, or even those who might want to take down the fence entirely? Paul pointed out that in the pace process, there are different places for people to work.

Paul challenged us to think about the words mercy, truth, justice and peace, and what each word meant in its true sense. No easy task ... most of us were quite flummoxed in the task of coming back in pairs with a skit, then later when we were asked to speak as our word to one side of the conflict in a very personal way. We were stretched, and uncomfortable, but the learning was deep.

After watching the movie Bloody Sunday after supper, and debriefing in preparation for our trip to Derry Friday, some of us decided a trip to O’Connor’s might be in order. Below are new Canadian friends Maggie from Vancouver and Alicia from Toronto (by way of Saskatchewan) with Deryk, and Sandy, April and Rick. Also, a picture of the many musicians gathered at O’Connors every Thursday evening.


Wednesday, 30 April 2014

April 30, 2014

Corrymeela really does begin when you leave ....

I realized yesterday that I am responsible for bringing 30 people to Corrymeela in the past 2 years. When I imagined, upon leaving Corrymeela after three months in September, 2011, that I might like to bring a group over someday, I don’t think I quite imagined the grand scale that it has come to be. I was reflecting on that incredible number as we arrived at Corrymeela yesterday afternoon, in the Corrymeela bus driven by Peter, long time friend of Corrymeela, Peter. Over the years Peter has driven hundreds of groups to and from many places, including Belfast, to the Giant’s Causeway, to Derry/Londonderry.

Upon arrival yesterday afternoon, we were met by our facilitator Rachel Craig, long time community member and former staff person, and the long term volunteer assigned to our group for the week, Deryk, from Brazil. There’s an incredible back story to the beginning of my friendship with Deryk that I told in a 2013 blog. The friendship began over a year ago when I found out that Deryk had been reading my blog in Brazil, and it inspired him to apply for one of the long term volunteer positions. After being welcomed and assigned our rooms, we had a tour of the site, which included several “adventure learning” games along the way, including skiing across the field to the Croi, the worship space. It’s fun to watch groups get over initial confusion and awkwardness about the task, and finally get into a rhythm of movement that included a “Corrymeela chant” to help mark the movements of each foot. By the other side of the field they were singing “I’ve been working on the railroad” at a pretty fast pace!

The beauty and magic of this place never fail me. I never get tired of seeing people’s first reactions to the geography, the view, the welcoming hospitality, the wonder that is all around. With each group that I bring here, I feel more and more rooted in this “project” ... in why I spend so much energy to make these trips happen. To facilitate this experience for others is a joy and a great gift. I could feel the relief settling over me (and the rest of the group) with each hour, realizing that I could begin to relax after months of planning and organization, endless emails and changed arrangements. I could now turn much over to those who will be journeying with us, Rachel and Paul and Deryk, and the Spirit that is present in this community.

This morning, after morning worship led by Yvonne, a community member who I have worked with a number of times, Rachel led us through a number of activities that showed us the connections between body work, trust building, group dynamics, leadership and peace and reconciliation. She then told us her story – how she came to Corrymeela and about the work that she has been involved in, both in Northern Ireland and around the world. We moved into our afternoon off full of gratitude and a new appreciation of the work of people like Rachel and this incredible community over the past 50 years. The site is now filled now with families and young children in the Main House, and a women’s group from Belfast sharing the Davey Village with us.

The sign over the door of the Main House has an inscription of one of Corrymeela founder Ray Davey’s sayings ... “Corrymeela begins when you leave.” Every time I re-enter this community, I find new meaning in that expression – my learning and understanding deepens, and I am filled with gratitude.
And, we’re only half way through the week!

Pictures below are of the group “skiing” to the Croi - at the very beginning, and then once they got their rhythm, and the group with Rachel Craig.

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Leaning ... to the right or the left?

Not much time for reflection this morning ... only to post a few pictures from yesterday before we head off to the Corrymeela Belfast office for the morning, and then up to Corrymeela after lunch. There is much excitement to finally be heading up there.

Yesterday began with a visit to the East Belfast Mission, and folks were suitably impressed. The story of their Irish language classes with both Protestants and Catholics was one that stayed with folks throughout the day. The classes are growing in popularity and gaining much attention, as seen in the Aljezeera report the previous day. (see link in yesterday's blog). We were also struck by the sheer beauty and functionality of the building, which has won many awards. And, of course one of the first things folks notice is the leaning posts (picture below) ... designed on purpose to symbolize a ship's mast. Linda and I began to think that there was a theme developing in our experience - the appearance of leaning structures - escpecially after seeing the famous leaning clock tower on our bus tour.

After lunch in the mission's cafe "refresh", we headed off to City Centre for a Hop On Hop Off bus tour - the best way I know to get a sense of the whole city in an hour and a half. On our way back to get a cab to Farset, we encountered a gay rights rally in front of city hall. Since both United Church congregations represented in our group (Bedford United and St. John's United in Halifax) are Affirming congregations and take part in the annual Halifax Pride Parade, we were happy to see the support that the community was receiving, and for me it was a welcome change from some of the other sectarian protests that I have seen at City Hall.

Monday, 28 April 2014

April 29, 2014
The Art of the Troubles

Linda and I visited the Ulster Museum in the early part of the day. While Linda explored some of the more historical exhibits, I headed for the new art exhibition “The Art of the Troubles”. I quickly realized that the short time we had allotted for the visit was not going to be enough time to do the exhibition justice. “I’ll just buy the book”, I thought ... thinking that every exhibit usually has a companion book available in the bookstore. That would allow me to move through the exhibit fairly quickly, and
to absorb it in greater depth at my own leisure. Well, that was my plan.

It is an amazing exhibition.  I was moved by many of the pieces – in particular a short video installation by Willie Doherty called Remains, about the generational nature of the conflict, and the passing on of attitudes over generations. I found out in the bookstore that in fact, they didn’t produce a book ... “the artists didn’t want any one image to be the definitive representation of the time ...” explained the young man who was staffing the museum store. When I remarked that I thought the exhibit was amazing, he agreed. “I loved it, until I saw it with my da ...”. I asked him to tell me more ... “well, for me it’s just art, but he actually lived it. For him, it represented something very real. I saw the exhibit very differently when I experienced it with him.”

I  did find out that there is a large online presence for the exhibit, which is explained in the video, linked below. So, I guess I can continue to ponder and have the pieces work on me without the book.


After a walk through the Botanical Gardens and the Palm House (pictured below) – built in the mid 1800s, which seemed quite incredible to us – we made our way to Farset to meet the rest of our group. All made the journey safely to Belfast, and after a couple of hours of checking in with each other, we made our way to Robinson’s for dinner. We are ready for the week!

Linda found the following article, number one on Aljezeeera yesterday, which heightened the excitement about our visit to the East Belfast Mission in the morning.

Below is our group at breakfast at Farset ... from left to right, Sandy, Judy, April, Rick, Linda, Rose and Karen.

Sunday, 27 April 2014

Fawlty Towers meets Absolutely Fabulous

For the fifth time in two years, I arrived into Belfast’s George Best city airport yesterday afternoon. This time, my traveling companion is one of my bff’s and a colleague in ministry, Linda Yates. Former partners in ministry at St. John`s United Church for 4 years, we have traveled overseas together once before – early in our relationship when we took a group of youth to Guatemala in 2007. This time, she is one of 7 participants in another Corrymeela pilgrimage through the Tatamagouche Centre in Nova Scotia.

The rest of the group is arriving into Belfast today. We arrived a day early, and because there was no room at Farset last night, over a month ago I booked into a B&B that I have stayed at several times before. Our adventure began as soon as we walked through the door.  Strong paint fumes ... the dining room was taken apart and being painted. Yes, they had the booking that I booked through Expedia, but even though my booking clearly stated that we had one room with two single beds, the proprieter (who Linda later said reminded her of Patsy in Absolutely Fabulous) said that they only got a the booking which said ``two adults`` and all they had was a room with one bed. ``It`s a king sized bed`` she sad ... (which it definitely was not...).  After trying to find another room in Belfast to no avail, we decided that between ear plugs, eye masks, and snore strips we could muddle through one night of sleeping together. And, she assured us that the dining room would be put back together and ready for what I remember as a fabulous breakfast by morning.

We got into the room and began to acclimatize ... Linda took a glass for a drink of water, put the empty glass on the shelf above the sink, and realized too late that the shelf was on such an angle that the glass slid off, right into the sink, breaking into a hundred pieces. I looked around for a plug to recharge my computer and my UK phone ... and realized there was only one accessible plug in the room. Linda went out for a walk ... I decided to take a shower. After running the water for five minutes, I got dressed and ran downstairs ... “any special trick to getting hot water?” I asked. “No, just let it run, it will come” was the answer. 10 minutes later and still no hot water ... I was getting kind of cranky by now. I did finally get a hot shower, only after another complaint that resulted in me getting a hot shower on the top floor bathroom with electrically heated water. The water alternated between extreme hot and extreme cold, with not a lot of control either way – I think I have burned my right breast.

Linda came back from her walk to find me nearly in tears ... this whole trip has been a bit of an emotional roller coaster in the weeks and months of planning for it, and I was not only frustrated, but embarrassed that I had brought her to this place. She was great ... in keeping with the British comedies, she said imagine that we’re in an episode of Fawlty Towers. I laughed, squeezed myself into our tiny bathroom, and knocked the toilet paper holder out of its wall socket. BASIL!!!!

We went out in search of dinner and ended up at Benedict’s – a great place to people watch, hear some music, and the food was good. And so was the beer. Found an old episode of Waking the Dead on TV, and settled into our less than king sized bed. This morning, paint fumes were minimal, and the breakfast was as good as I remembered. Linda did notice that the an old bookcase made into a china cabinet in the dining room was dangerously leaning over on the wall ,,, and she also noticed the inscription on one of the books (well, really it was wallpaper) .... together we live. It’s great to be with a good friend with a sense of humour – and thank God for British comedies! Today, a visit to the Ulster Museum, and then  to meet our fellow pilgrims.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

February 23, 2013
More questions ...

Friday morning we had a meeting with Pat Sheehan, Sinn Fein MLA for West Belfast. (hwww.westbelfastsinnfein.com/representatives/18094). I had heard Pat speak two years ago when he met with the Saint Mary’s group, and knew that he was an engaging and informative speaker. He didn’t disappoint.  He gave us two hours of his time, and wove together a history lesson (from a republican viewpoint, of course), his own personal story as one of the 1980 hunger strikers in Long Kesh prison, and political ideology and philosophy in our time together. He was 55 days on a hunger strike, near death when the strike was called off. We met at the offices of Tar Anall, an organization that offers a wide range of support to republican ex-prisoners and their families (taranall.ie/cms), and has an IRA museum on the bottom floor.

As usual, most of us left with more questions to ponder. When asked about Sinn Fein’s platform, he stated that it is a party that advocates equality, and is a party of independence. Sheehan stated openly that Sinn Fein sees The Good Friday Agreement as a route to a united Ireland through political and peaceful means. However, he also said that didn’t necessarily mean one government, for example, the government in the south, which many regard as corrupt. Sheehan stated that Sinn Fein has always had socialist principles, with basic human rights as a cornerstone of its platform. Since being in the government, Sinn Fein has always held the education portfolio because of their belief that education is the key to addressing issues of poverty.

When asked about a possible emerging Northern Ireland identity, he was doubtful, but pondered the possibilities. On the current partnership government in Stormont, he asked what many are asking – can you have an effective government without an opposition? Sheehan contends that yes, you can, and that many effective governments around the world have the same model. On what he calls a “truth recovery” process, similar to truth and reconciliation processes in South Africa or Canada, he said that unless there is some kind of investigation process at the top, ie with the British state, he did not believe that folks would have much investment in the process.

I expressed my confusion about the way an outsider might refer to the north/Northern Ireland outside of this country. What were we to do with all of our “Northern Ireland Dialogue for Peace” t-shirts? Is there any non-biased way to refer to the region? He laughed and said perhaps we could alternate ... also that I could probably let myself off the hook a bit – the most important thing was to understand and be aware of the difference.

After a quick tour of the IRA museum downstairs, most of us headed off to catch a “Hop On Hop Off” tour of Belfast, then home to Farset to watch the Canada/US hockey game.

Saturday was a day off – most went off in groups to explore more of the city. Many (including myself) ended up at a Belfast Giants hockey game. I was amazed at the packed arena – mostly filled with kids under 10. It was an excited and animated crowd that was there to cheer for their Elite League champions. Today, we evaluate and reflect for a couple of hours, then head to Robinsons where we have been promised a TV set to watch the Gold Medal game ... that is until 1:30 when the advertised football game starts. Then we will have to watch the game without sound – a small sacrifice I suppose. Will post some pictures of the Canadian infiltration of ice hockey into a Belfast sports bar. Go Canada Go!

Saturday, 22 February 2014

February 22, 2014
Wednesday and Thursday – two days chock full of stimulating conversations, curiosity, confusion, questions, great food, and at the end of the day ... immense pride in our Canadian womens’ hockey team for winning the gold.

Wednesday began with a visit to the East Belfast Mission (www.ebm.org.uk), a project of the Methodist church, which has in one way or another occupied the site since the late 1700s. The present building, which has won awards for its architecture and elements of sustainability, is home to three stages of housing – a shelter, transition housing, and separate apartments - numerous offices and studios, rooms for dance, yoga, workshops and classes, a sanctuary, and a wonderful cafe called "refresh", with very affordable and delicious food.

Megan Miller, manager of Compass (one of the organizations of the East Belfast Mission), gave us a presentation on “Skainos”, which is the manager, or landlord, for the mission. This is from their website: “... the word is from a biblical Greek word and rooted firmly in Christian tradition and history, the name Skainos speaks of the importance of practical engagement with a community by figuratively pitching a tent in its midst, and it hints at the notion of hospitality and the extended family.  An alternative meaning for the word is as a description of the frailty of human beings. It stands therefore as a useful counterbalance to the temptation to focus solely on new building to the detriment of serving people.” Megan, said that folks loosely translate the word to mean “God’s living among the people.”

This concept is evident in the structure of the building, and in its philosophy and theology of operation. Megan said that the original vision was to have an “urban village” ... where all would be welcome. One can see this vision lived out in the one of the outside walls, a living wall (pictured with the group, below), in the small details of architecture that give a nod to the industrial heritage of the area, and even in the sanctuary, where large windows purposefully look out to the homeless shelter (also pictured below) to remind folks inside that they are not separated from their community.

For anyone interested in church development, and what is possible, Skainos is a dream. They have many programs for children, youth, families, and seniors, including a highly successful Irish language program called “turas”, which has participants from both loyalist and republican backgrounds. The word “turas” actually means journey in both Irish and Scottish language. Another amazing part of the organization is its commitment to social enterprise. Again, from their website: “A social enterprise is also known as “not–for–profit” as profits are used to further social and environmental goals rather than distributed to financial investors.” Some of the current social economy/enterprises of Skainos are a cafe, a for profit daycare centre, and a used clothing shop.

After the East Belfast Mission, we had another lively and informative session at the Andy Tyrie Interpretive Centre, a museum of the UDA. I wrote about this organization on last years trip (check out the February 2013 entries) but it’s safe to say we were all engaged by Billy Rowan, Mark Anderson, and Alan Price, former combatants who talked about present day challenges and engaging youth in the community. As we heard last year, their challenges are in continuing to advocate for the renouncing of violence, and in engaging young people in the political process to work for change.

Thursday we visited the Corrymeela Belfast office for a time with Sean Pettis, whose role is Programme Coordinator for the Facing Our Past Shaping our Future project, part of the larger Facing Our History and Ourselves project. This is a project that engages high school youth and teachers in conversations about ethical decision making and citizenship, using the Holocaust as a case study. Sean said that using a distant case study often helps people look at their own context more easily, helping folks to first explore universal themes and then move into the particular themes that apply to their own context.

We learned a lot from Sean, and he packed much into an hour and a half, including several short videos, one about Facing Our History and Ourselves:
We left quite energized, and with lots of materials and ideas for our work with Halifax high schools in March.

Ivan Cross, youth worker for Corrymeela, then hosted us on a tour of the peace walls and interface neighbourhoods of Belfast. Although we had seen many of them before, it was great to have Ivan’s commentary and explanations of some of the context and history of the walls.

Filled with information, more questions, and lots of ideas for connecting our work in Canada with the work of peacebuilding in this area of the world, folks headed off in different directions to explore Queen’s University, the Botanical Gardens, the Ulster Museum, or the charity shops in the area before dinner at one of our favourite restaurants, The Bird Cage.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

February 20, 2014
Goodbye again ...

Tuesday morning was spent getting packed up, changing the bed linens, a final worship which Yvonne led and introduced us to Jesus and Peter (picture below), a trip to the Giant’s Causeway and Finn McCool (see a blog entry in August 2011 for the legend of Finn McCool ...), and the drive to our next destination, Farset International in Belfast.

I was introduced to this amazing place through the Saint Mary’s University group that also travels yearly to Belfast, in partnership with Peaceful Schools International. Farset is a cross between a hostel and a hotel, is run by Ruth, and has many interesting people that come through its doors, both to stay and to meet. We settled in, had a rest, and then headed out to Robinson’s for dinner. Some kept going, finding live music at Madden’s and Fibber McGee’s ... but some of us came home to prepare for the next phase of our journey – visits to community groups in Belfast.

Pictured below – Jesus and Peter leading worship; the group with Yvonne, our facilitator from Corrymeela, and our two volunteers Conor and Anni; me and my “blog buddy”, Deryk from Brazil, now a long term volunteer (for the full story, see last year’s blog); saying goodbye and getting on the Corrymeela bus; first night in Belfast at Robinson’s.

February 19, 2014
Bloody Sunday

It was a roller coaster of emotions on Sunday ... from the Olympic hockey game we went right into watching the movie Bloody Sunday in preparation for our trip on Monday to Derry/Londonderry. The movie is a raw and factual account of the events of January 30, 1972 in the Bogside area of Derry, when 13 innocent civilians were murdered by British soldiers during a civil rights march to protest internment – imprisonment without trial or evidence.

Some of us had seen the movie before – but it was an entirely different situation watching it with Yvonne, who is from Derry, and one of our volunteers, Conor, a young man from the north of Ireland who says he grew up in a non-sectarian household, and feels that he has not absorbed the hatred towards “the other side” through his schooling and upbringing. However, he admits that when he sees movies like Bloody Sunday, it stirs up his anger towards those that perpetuated the atrocity. Even Yvonne, who has seen the movie several times, and has lived and breathed the work of Corrymeela for decades, was visibly upset at the end of the movie. It was hard for all of us to sit in the pain and helplessness of it all, over 40 years after the fact.

Our trip to Derry began with meeting Jon McCourt, a peace builder for over 30 years, on the walls of Derry for a tour and a bit of history. He was engaging and had many stories to tell as we walked around the walls. He then took the group down to the Bogside to recount the horrors of that day ... which he witnessed first hand. I was not able to accompany the rest of group on that part of the walk, but all said it was very powerful. Jon had pictures of that day, and had folks stand on the very spots where some were killed as he talked about them, many of them folks he knew.

We then heard from Maureen Hetherington from The Junction, a brand new building that holds the offices of a number of smaller community organizations. Maureen’s work involves working with people to help them tell their stories in a way that leads to healing. It was one of her statements that will stay with me for awhile – she said she wasn’t sure if reconciliation was ever really possible, which is why she didn’t like to use the word. She preferred the word “healing’, or even “moving forward”, to indicate that perhaps some people might never be reconciled to perpetrators, or violent events of their past, but they at least might be able to live with their memories and experiences without pain and dysfunction.

Our shared reflection that night was very deep and powerful, made possible by our volunteer Anni who led us through an art activity that helped us name and talk about our feelings from the day.

In four days, I am amazed at the transformation of this group. Their body language is different, more open, more relaxed, more inviting of others. In our closing circle Monday night at Corrymeela, many gratitudes were offered to Yvonne and the volunteers for creating and holding the space to learn and go deeper within ourselves. The hospitality that oozes out of every nook and cranny at Corrymeela reaps many benefits, including the ability to receive new information, challenge one’s own assumptions and long held beliefs, and radiate hospitality oneself. We all felt blessed by each other, and the experience of the last few days.

Below is a picture of the group with Jon McCourt on the walls of Derry

. Also in the picture are Yvonne and Richard Naylor, and Anni and Conor, our volunteers from Corrymeela.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

February 17, 2014
Is that Northern Ireland, or the north of Ireland?

It’s a question that has been on my mind these past few days, and brings with it the discomfort of knowing that even the name of our group, the Dalhousie Northern Ireland Dialogue for Peace, has a clear bias to it. Since partition in 1921 when a separate country of Northern Ireland, part of the UK, was created, there has been a huge difference of opinion as to whether the division of Ireland into north and south (referred to as the Republic) was a good thing, or the worst thing that has happened.  Republicans, or nationalists, make no apologies for articulating a goal of the future that includes a united Ireland. On the other hand, loyalists, or unionists, see themselves as British citizens with a distinct identity from those in the south.

It’s complicated, and confusing. And to someone who still doesn’t quite understand the difference – and it’s taken me over two years to finally just start to “get” it – it would be easy to miss the subtle difference between Yvonne’s introduction (I’m from Northern Ireland) and Conor’s (I’m from the north of Ireland). Both are making a statement about their identity.

And it’s all complicated by the fact that Northern Ireland as a country is nearly a century old, and has its own distinct history, currency, and government. Some of us heard folks say last year that they believed that there was a new “Northern Ireland identity” that was emerging that was different from the identity of those in the Republic of Ireland, or either the nationalist/loyalist/catholic or unionist/loyalist/protestant identities.

It hit home to me when we had a discussion with Allistair Little and Gerry Foster, both ex-prisoners working actively for peace and transformation, both in Ireland and around the world. Little, whose story is partly dramatized in the movie Five Minutes of Heaven, is a unionist who calls himself a British citizen. Foster, a nationalist, said politically he would be in favour of a united Ireland. However much they differ politically, it is clear that they have a strong friendship that has developed over a decade of working together to help bring about change. There is a lot of pain in their stories, but also humour, and they challenge and poke fun at each other often during the conversation.

When asked about a vision for the future, Allistair said he would prefer to use the word “aspiration” ... and talked about a society where differences are celebrated instead of feared ... where men can let go of their need to be “macho” ... where violence is not seen as an answer to problems. Both men talked about their daughters, and of making the world a better place for them, and about the universal aspect of their work, whether it is Northern Ireland, or in Afganistan, or Israel, or Palestine.

It was a very moving few hours to sit in their company and see that indeed, transformation is possible.

And from the deep to the not so deep, early Sunday evening was spent trying to watch the Canada/Finland hockey game ... after many attempts, the system that finally worked was Skyping Pat Martin in Halifax, having him turn the computer around to the live game on TV ... ain't technology grand?

Sunday, 16 February 2014

February 16, 2014
Let the wind and the rain and the hail go high ...

This line, from the popular Irish song “Mairi’s Wedding”, was stuck in my head after we heard it at O’Connors, one of the favourite local pubs, last night. We had it all yesterday – wind, rain, and some even experienced hail on their afternoon walk into Ballycastle.

It was a wild and crazy day weather-wise at Corrymeela yesterday. Always needing to find something to worry about, I worried that someone might be blown off the cliff if they got too close. The wind was that strong. Now I wonder if it’s possibly a metaphor for our time here ... a metaphor for the shared new experiences that blow into our old asumptions and preconceptions, for the water that refreshes and quenches our thirsty souls in the form of friendships, coastal beauty, and community reflections, and even for the occasional discomfort that comes from being pelted with new ideas, stories of pain and hurt, and facing our own unresolved conflicts.

We arrived at Corrymeela about 6 pm on Friday night – somewhat later than expected because the bus driver assigned to us wrote down the wrong day for pick up. When Alana called him, he was surprised to hear we were waiting at the George Best Airport – he thought we were to be picked up on Saturday. He assured us that he would be there within the hour, which he was, but initially it was all a bit anti-climatic after our long journey. Upon arrival, we were greeted in the pounding rain by Yvonne Naylor, our faciliatator for the four days in Corrymeela. I worked with Yvonne many times during my summer stay in 2011, and she worked with the group of students on last year’s trip, so it was great to see her again.

We also met Conor from Northern Ireland (or, as he would say, the North of Ireland ... more on that later) and Anni from Germany, who were the volunteers assigned to our group. And, Paul Hutchinson, former Director of the Corrymeela Centre, who met the group in Nova Scotia just two short weeks ago, joined us for early conversations and dinner. It was also a wonderful reunion for Alana, who had been a mid-term volunteer from October to December. Both volunteers and staff alike came running through doors and hallways to greet her upon our arrival.

Saturday was spent in some fairly intense content sessions on sectarianism, the History of Northern Ireland, and a video about Corrymeela’s work in the schools and the community. Yvonne explained sectarianism as “a system of attitudes, actions, beliefs and structures at personal, communal and institutional levels which always involves religion and typically involves a negative mixing of religion and politics.” She explained that sectarianism arises as a distorted expression of positive, human needs, especially for belonging, identity, and free expression of difference. It is expressed in the hardening of boundaries between groups and in dehumanising or demonising others. We all agreed that although sectarianism is not a word that is used much in Canada, the concept and existence of sectarianism certainly exists as we related stories from our own experiences of groups in Canada that have excluded others because of a difference.

After evening reflection in the Croi (the Irish word for heart), it was decided that a trip to one of the 19 local pubs in Ballycastle was in order. To our delight, O’Connors was jumping ... live music, filled with people, and Guinness on tap. It was a great end to a wonderful first day.

Friday, 14 February 2014

Waiting for my flock ...

For the fourth time in two years, I am once again in Belfast with a group interested in learning about the peace and reconciliation process in Northern Ireland. This time, however, I am alone, waiting for my group to arrive this afternoon. There have been many times in the past six months when I thought this moment would not arrive – that in fact my dream of building relationships between Dalhousie University and the Corrymeela Peace and Reconciliation Centre in Ballycastle, Northern Ireland, where I spent three months while on sabbatical in the summer of 2011, might have run its course.

In fact, this trip should probably not be happening ... from a slow start last fall as we struggled to find enough participants to make it a go, to fundraising challenges, to my own personal health concerns and major surgery in December, to flight cancellations and snow storms, the odds have been against this trip happening. But ... it is.

As I write this, I am watching the Olympics on BBC in a Belfast Hotel – waiting for my flock to arrive this afternoon. I booked my flight later than everyone else because of the very real possibility that I might not be able to travel with the group this year, so I was on a different flight than the others (the one that got cancelled on Wednesday!) I did finally get out, being re-routed on a different airline. Although hard on my psyche – being separated from the group, and of course giving up total control over everything – it has been good for my body to get a head start on acclimatizing to the new time zone.

Despite our challenges this year we’ve also had many joys and moments to celebrate – a wonderfully keen group of seven Dalhousie students and one Dal alumna who have come together and worked hard as a team doing fundraising and educational activities for six months, a great visit to Halifax two weeks ago from Paul Hutchinson, former Centre Director of Corrymeela, and an amazing team of folks who supported the group during my recovery period. There are many people behind us - family, friends and colleagues – who have kept things moving forward when things got tough.

And so the journey begins again – and this time, the Canadians may even commandeer a local pub in Belfast for the Gold Medal Olympic Game (assuming, of course , that ... well, you know ...)  ... perhaps a study in itself of peace and reconciliation. Below is the group at the Halifax airport, ready to go – from the back, Bridget Graham, Claire Chilelli, Kendra Wilcox, Adrian Lacson; middle, Alana Martin, Marisha Pluta; front, Brennan Low and Daniel Whitten.